The War on Christmas - when did that start? Upon the birth of Jesus Christ himself, when King Herod ordered all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem be killed? In 1644, when Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans passed an ordinance prohibiting Christmas celebrations?
In 1659, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans managed to get Christmas banned for 22 years for being a pagan festival?
Or, was it in 1998, in Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham? If you picked up practically any newspaper at the time, you would have read that Birmingham city council had renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’.Read More
ERIC MOLINSKY: It was a dark and stormy night.
I know that’s the ultimate cliché, but if there ever was a story that began on a dark and stormy night, this was it. It was the middle of June 1816, when Mary Shelley started writing a novel called Frankenstein; or the New Prometheus.
But here’s the funny thing: usually we celebrate the year a work of art came out, which in this case would be 1818 because Mary Shelley spent two years writing Frankenstein. So why are we celebrating the moment of inspiration? Because June 16, 1816 – not just what was happening in Mary Shelley’s room that night, but what was happening around the world - might actually offer us a glimpse into our future.Read More
Each of the 50 states in the USA has its own motto. The motto might be found on the state seal, or the state flag; more often than not, it might be in Latin; it might be a phrase or a single word.
If you reside in the USA and you’re thinking, yeah, I know my state motto, it’s on all the license plates: ‘Montana: Big Sky Country’, say, in, or ‘Florida: The Sunshine State’ or ‘Famous Potatoes’- get in, Idaho.
Sorry, friends, these are not the state mottos.Read More
ROMAN MARS: Would the Heimlich Manoeuvre be something that people knew if it wasn't attached to a name like Heimlich? No, I don’t think so.
HZ: Would it have made the news in May of this year when 96-year-old Dr Henry Heimlich himself saved a woman from choking on a piece of hamburger meat by using the manoeuvre that bears his name?
RM: So I still like eponyms in these ways that they help tell an interesting story. But I totally get why and I'm not so tied to my world view or nostalgia that I cannot accept that it would be better another way.
HZ: Well, good, because there are certainly some aspects to eponyms that I don’t think you’d like, Roman.Read More
JENNI RODD: So what we're trying to understand is the processes that are going on in your head right now as you try and understand what I'm saying.
HZ: Jenni Rodd is a cognitive psychologist at University College London, and I think she can look right through my skull to see those processes at work.
JR: If I could do that, that would make my job a whole heap easier. Unfortunately we can't look directly into your brain, so we have to come up with cunning and devious experiments that are the next best thing.
HZ: Experiments studying how people respond to language, written or spoken, sometimes while the subject undergoes an fMRI scan - functional magnetic resonance imaging - to show what the brain is up to.
JR: But what we want to understand is for each word that you hear, or possibly read, what it is that you're doing in your head to figure out what that individual word means, and then how you put those together to understand the meaning of sentences, paragraphs, conversations and so on.Read More
"The fact is that none of the world's writing systems apart from codes are meant to be obscure. And this is crucial. Normal writing systems that we can't read just because we haven't deciphered them doesn't mean that they indecipherable; it means that we haven't done it."Read More
There are many reasons why languages become extinct, but to pick an extreme example: a couple of thousand years hence, after the apocalypse, the only present-day language still being spoken then is, say, Portuguese. But there’s all this written material from the lost cultures that you, the post-apocalyptic survivor, want to decrypt. Technology is totally different by then - except optical magnification, which remains fundamentally similar to how it has been since humans began using it millennia before. In the ancient ruins of Fort Mason, San Francisco, you find a Rosetta Disk, successfully engineered to remain undamaged by fire and water and air and time. Around the edges of the disk, there’s writing large enough for you to read; but you see there are more small markings on it. You put the disk under a microscope. You see text you recognise in Portuguese - huh, that text next to it is similar in size and shape, you start spotting a word that appears with similar frequency as in the Portuguese, thus you deduce what that one means, and then another, you start seeing linguistic patterns and gain some insight into what characters and writing system are being used. And if you stick with the task long enough, you figure out that language.
This isn’t some futuristic dream. It has already happened. Most famously with the Rosetta Project’s namesake, the Rosetta Stone.Read More
HZ: Where are you speaking to me from right now?
AMY: The geographic South Pole.
HZ: If it weren’t dark outside, Amy Lowitz could look out the window and see the actual South Pole marker.
AL: I’m here at the South Pole, working for the University of Chicago on the South Pole telescope as a winter telescope operator.
CHRISTINE: I’m Christine Moran ... I’m on one year leave to operate the South Pole telescope down here at the South Pole and Antarctica with Amy Lowitz.
HZ: And when did you last see daylight?
CM: April,-ish? I think at least 3-4 months of total darkness, or close to it.
HZ: And a few weeks after the sunlight disappears for the last time before the totally dark months of Antarctic winter, something odd starts to occur. People start to forget - what was it? ...Words! And they drift off without finishing their...uh...
ALLISON: It happens! It happens.
HZ: ...Sentences!Read More
HELEN ZALTZMAN: Welcome back to the EtymOlympics, where the meaning of sport is the sport.
MATTHEW CROSBY: And of course, sport itself, from the French ‘desporter’, used to mean an amusing and fun pastime.
HZ: That’s right, Matthew. Something to remember, football fans. Supposed to be fun.
MC: That meaning was 700 years ago though. A lot has changed in 700 years. Look how much easier it is nowadays to get a soy latte.
HZ: And there's a very excited crowd out there
MC: I can only describe the atmosphere as electric.
HZ: That's because sports commentators can only describe atmospheres as electric.
MC: It's the only adjective I ever learnt.
MIRANDA SAWYER: You’re not that special, you are part of your generation, that affects your taste, it affects how you approach things.
HZ: So there’s a certain amount of identity forged by the time in which you are.
MS: Absolutely. And it’s to do with television shows, fashion, what happened to you when you’re a teenager, the general atmosphere around you - when you see programmes about the history of punk, they’re always talking about the three-day week and rubbish in the streets, and it was quite awful. You can’t help things like that shaping you. They just do.
HZ: So if, say, you were born between 1925 and 1942, you’d be part of the Silent Generation, as the McCarthy era taught you to lie low. Landed on this earth between 1843 and 1859? Progressive Generation - growing up during the American Civil War, you’d react against that when you came of age and prioritise progress and reform over the pursuit of power. According to the circumstances surrounding them, generations have been profiled all the way back to 1433, the Arthurian Generation.
Much of the identification of the generational cycles has been spearheaded over the past three decades by Neil Howe and his late collaborator William Strauss. They even have their names on a theory, Strauss-Howe generational theory. But generational theory itself goes back farther. Thomas Jefferson effectively espoused it in a letter to James Madison in 1789, contemplating how the United States could reboot its constitution every 19 years to allow for the changing requirements of each new generation. And then, in the nineteenth century, generational theory really took off amongst philosophers and sociologists.
HZ: The idea of the generations solidifies when they have labels. But those labels are an odd collection. There’s no aesthetic or thematic connection between, say, 'Silent Generation' and 'Baby Boomer' and 'Generation X' and 'Millennials' - and the attempt to follow Generation X with Generation Y didn't really take off, instead 'Millennial' was the name that stuck.Read More
HZ: How are you?
ISY: I’m wearing trousers that are kind of digging into my bum in a weird way. They’re a cross between leggings and jeans -
HZ: - jeggings -
ISY: Yeah. And they’re partly falling down and partly digging in, which is quite a strange combination.
HZ: Well great, now I’m all too aware of the state of her bumcrack. But if I didn’t want to know how she is, why did I even ask?
Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? That is how conversations so often begin. And nearly every time, this is how it goes:
How are you?
Fine thanks, and you?
It's not informative, so why bother? It's an exchange that indicates a conversation is being initiated. It's small talk: safe, trivial - small.Read More
There are a few things to consider when naming a podcast:
- Is someone using the name already? That’s important: do your research; at the very least, go to the iTunes store and check.
- Is the name such a common word or phrase that your show will not appear in the first thousand pages of Google results?
- Is the name a riff on a pre-existing title, like That American Life, so no matter how successful your show gets, it will never completely be your own, and always a bit of a parasite on someone else's thing?
- Is it a riff on ‘pod’ or ‘cast’? That was already stale when I was starting my first podcast nearly ten years ago. Resist the pod puns!
The term ‘classic’ turned up in English around the start of the 17th century, when it meant ‘of the highest class’ - same meaning as the Latin ‘classicus’ from which it came. It swiftly became the label for ancient Greek and Latin literature, and by the mid-19th century, that sense had been extended to any works with that sort of quality - though when it comes to the classics of English literature, I’m vague about what that quality is. “Written by dead white men”, going by the selection of classic literature that I had to read at school and university. “Big books that make me feel guilty and stupid for not having read them?” “Source material for TV dramatisations involving bonnets?” Seriously, what does ‘classic’ mean now?Read More
RH: People like words that sound silly. Compound words that have a lot of elements to them, like ‘catawampus’ - people are always going to love ‘catawampus’, and I think it’s just how it sounds, those Lewis Carroll-esque words that are just fun to say. We recently did ‘waffle stompers’, it’s just one of those words that has that je ne sais quoi, so silly you know you’re going to get a rise out of people. In a good way. Waffle stompers are hiking boots. Why would you ever say ‘hiking boots’ again?
JS: We had a lot of cat words.
RH: I don’t know if it was a lot, but we’re not afraid to pander occasionally.
JS: The internet loves cats…